Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem (First Run/Icarus, NR)

dvd_agent-orange.jpgVietnam provides an ideal natural laboratory to study the health effects of long-term exposure to Agent Orange.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Current estimates are that 21 million gallons of defoliants and herbicides, collectively known as Agent Orange, were sprayed on the southern portion of Vietnam in the years 1961 to 1971. The purpose of the spraying was to destroy vegetation which provided the Viet Cong with cover, but an unintended side effect was to expose many human beings to large quantities of toxic chemicals.

Most information about Agent Orange in the popular media has focused on disease and disabilities suffered by servicemen from America or her allies, and Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem begins on this note. The director, Masako Sakata, was prompted to make the film after her husband Greg Davis, who served three years in Vietnam in the 1960s, died at the age of 54 from liver cancer which he believed was related to Agent Orange exposure.

Sakata chronicles Davis’s life during and after his military service; he was a noted photojournalist before his untimely death. The more interesting part of the film, however, begins when Sakata decides to investigate the effects of Agent Orange exposure on the Vietnamese. She travels to Vietnam and interviews many people affected by the chemical, from peasants living in rural villages to physicians and aid workers providing care for children with severe birth defects which they attribute to Agent Orange exposure.

One of the most alarming among Sakata’s discoveries is that there appears to be no statute of limitations on the harm caused by Agent Orange; many of the severely disabled children she visits are three or four generations removed from the last use of the defoliant in 1971. Blood tests demonstrate that these children have high levels of dioxin (a component of Agent Orange) in their bodies, suggesting that the toxic chemicals linger on in the soil and water.

As a biostatistician, I feel compelled to note that there’s no proof that the suffering and disability displayed in Sakata’s documentary was caused by Agent Orange exposure. Several studies conducted on American servicemen have failed to find convincing evidence that Agent Orange is hazardous to humans. Despite this lack of proof, however, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs automatically awards compensation for many illnesses to soldiers who served in Vietnam and are assumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.

The Vietnamese have not been so lucky. As several people interviewed in Agent Orange point out, Vietnam as a country is much poorer than the United States, and is unable to provide even basic support for many of disabled citizens. Efforts to claim compensation through the courts have so far been unsuccessful; a lawsuit on behalf of Vietnamese exposed to Agent Orange filed in 2004 (naming Dow Chemical and Monsanto, among other firms) was dismissed in U.S. District Court in 2005.

As one of Sakata’s interview subjects points out, Vietnam provides an ideal natural laboratory to study the health effects of long-term exposure to Agent Orange, because people living in the areas which were heavily sprayed have much greater and longer-term exposure to Agent Orange than servicemen on a single tour of duty. However, no one is carrying out this research. I suspect the reasons are a combination of disinterest on the part of funding agencies toward the welfare of Vietnamese peasants, and fear of discovering evidence which could support future lawsuits against American chemical companies.

Agent Orange: A Personal Requiem is distributed by First Run/Icarus Films. Further information about the film is available from the company website (http://www.frif.com/new2008/agen.html) and pricing information is available from 718-488-8900 or 800-876-1710. | Sarah Boslaugh

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